When we are young and innocent, we trust that the adults in our lives are there to protect us. However, this is far from reality for many children and not only in terms of their physical safety. Society can be very blind to the uncomfortable truth that the way we raise our children can often do more harm than good.
Growing up, I always felt like I didn’t belong. My mind has blanked out a lot of my childhood, but I remember often telling my parents that I knew I had been adopted. Being a mother myself now, I start to question why I felt so alone and different at such young age. My relationship with my parents today is strained so we are not able to discuss things like this calmly. This is because I grew up in a home full of toxicity and abuse despite the fact that from the outside the family looked ordinary, with no physical signs of abuse. Nevertheless, in the words of my elders, I “flew off the rails”.
Children often get labelled with this stereotype when they begin to look deeper within themselves and their families, questioning the reality around them and deciding not to follow the pre-programmed path. In dictionaries this term is used to describe someone who has lost track of reality. We use this phrase on our young people while they battle traumas, injuries, puberty, and demons of all kinds. No wonder we have so many children in the developed world with poor mental health, and no wonder they take their lives.
When I was 12 my life appeared mostly “normal”. Being told who I should be while trying to work it out for myself, meant that I kept lots of feelings and questions quiet. I was not encouraged to follow my interests but to follow money and show society I was successful – the rails, right? Nothing I did at home was good enough and I had to re-do chores and tasks to bring them up to required standard. It damaged my mind and killed my sense of self-worth.
College was ok to start with as most of my friends from primary school were with me in the new school. In my second year I began getting bullied and school life was no longer about grades and periods. It became a mission to avoid the wrong corners in corridors or being smashed in the face by yet another hateful girl. I couldn’t understand what I had done, I had never even talked to these girls before, and I didn’t know their names. By the end of that year the whole school seemed to hate me, I was the perfect target. My own life began to really unravel before my eyes and the reality I had known before would be gone forever. I had been raised to keep quiet and walk away from conflict, not answer back and not have an opinion. No one listened to me, no one would stop the girls, and no one would help me. My grades dropped and teachers started telling me to haul myself up and try harder because my current standard of work was not good enough.
I began to hate myself and look within for reasons why everyone around me seemed so hateful too. All of my friends had walked away, no longer allowed or wanting to be associated with me. I was alone and spent much of my time hiding from school life, which affected home life. The latter was no better, with neither support nor open communication. Everywhere I turned, I was being told to “grow up and get on with it” because apparently that what life was about. No one talked about the bullying but instead they pretended it was not happening and so I felt invisible. I spent most of my time at home locked in my bedroom, sleeping. Sometimes, instead of going to school I would stay in bed all day.
I had developed this fixation about changing my appearance that it felt like I would have done anything to be someone else. I dyed my hair, cut it, shaved lines in my brows, cut my body with razors, wore boys’ clothes which were too big for me, and developed an eating disorder. Looking back, I know it was a cry for help; desperation for anyone to help stop the pain. People around me didn’t see beyond a young girl crying out for attention. Being a mother myself now, I cannot understand how my own parents ignored all this and just let it happen. Were they not worried? Or were they glad that I was hidden from everyone and hoped I would just “grow up”.
With the start of the fifth year, a new girl came to school with whom I became friends. We both got bullied every day and soon found ways of dealing with it. We often skipped school, sometimes she would bring booze. The bullying was intense: we had our hair cut, were spat on, had rubbish thrown at us, chairs kicked from under us, called names and more. My friend’s hair was even set on fire by another girl. And still, our parents made us go to school and it was the two of us who would get detention for wagging, or in trouble for all the bullying we received.
Eventually, my friend left school and it was harder for me again. One day, as I was walking down a corridor, a group of five boys appeared from one doorway and threw something at me – a liquid with a sour taste and strange smell. It was in my hair, eyes, mouth, all over my clothes and books. I went to the school office to ask for a shirt from the lost property and said what had happened. No one bothered to look into the situation. I went home with red, burning skin. It turned out the boys had stolen a bottle of acid from the science room and decided to try it on me.
I told my parents I didn’t want to keep going to school. “You can leave school but if you do, you won’t be living in my house”, said my mum. I ran away that night and have not been back. I guess this was the point at which I “flew off the rails” in the public view, no longer hidden. I was homeless, lived in poverty with no water and heating, and got to know hunger so well that rubbish bins seemed like restaurants. I stole from people to survive. I spent two years living rough with various people.
To the outside world I was just a young girl following the wrong path in life, making mistakes and ruining her life. I was “naughty” and “acted out”, “running off the rails” and “attention seeking” – such were my labels given by society. These stereotypes blinded everyone around me as to the reality of what was actually happening.
If the tools for dealing with bullying had been available to me back then, perhaps life would have been different. If I had had the supportive, loving, nurturing family home life to guide and protect me then maybe the proverbial rail would not have been so broken but just slightly bent. Even today, a 33-year-old mother of three, I struggle with the voices in my head telling me I am not good enough. It has taken many hours of therapy to overcome what was drilled into my head during my childhood and teen years.
My parents raised me the way they had been raised themselves. It was a toxic family cycle, which has ended with me – I can stand proudly and say that I have broken it. It has cost me my parents, my brother and my family but I refuse to allow this cycle to continue with the next generations. My children know love and kindness, they know conversation and communication, they know how to have a voice and they know that I will always be there for them – no matter what.